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III The Heart Of Man Anna Katharine Green

XL Desolate

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The struggle was fierce but momentary. Oswald with his weakened powers could not long withstand the steady exertion of Orlando's giant strength, and ere long sank away from the contest into Mr. Challoner's arms.

"You should not have summoned the shade of our mother to your aid," observed the other with a smile, in which the irony was lost in terrible presage. " I was always her favourite."

Oswald shuddered. Orlando had spoken truly; she had always been blindly, arrogantly trustful of her eldest son. No fault could she see in him; and now -

Impetuously Oswald struggled with his weakness, raised himself in Mr. Challoner's arms and cried in loud revolt:

But God is just. He will not let you escape. If He does, I will not. I will hound you to the ends of this earth and, if necessary, into the eternities. Not with the threat of my arm - you are my master there, but with the curse of a brother who believed you innocent of his darling's blood and would have believed you so in face of everything but your own word."

Peace!" adjured Orlando. "There is no account I am not ready to settle. I have robbed you of the woman you love, but I have despoiled myself. I stand desolate in the world, who but an hour ago could have chosen my seat among the best and greatest. What can your curses do after that?"

"Nothing." The word came slowly like a drop wrung from a nearly spent heart. " Nothing; nothing. Oh, Orlando, I wish we were both dead and buried and that there were no further life for either of us."

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The softened tone, the wistful prayer which would blot out an immortality of joy for the one, that it might save the other from an immortality of retribution, touched some long unsounded chord in Orlando's extraordinary nature.

Advancing a step, he held out his hand - the left one. "We'll leave the future to itself, Oswald, and do what we can with the present," said he. "I've made a mess of my life and spoiled a career which might have made us both kings. Forgive me, Oswald. I ask for nothing else from God or man. I should like that. It would strengthen me for to-morrow."

But Oswald, ever kindly, generous and more ready to think of others than of himself, had yet some of Orlando's tenacity. He gazed at that hand and a flush swept up over his cheek which instantly became ghastly again.

"I cannot," said he - "not even the left one. May God forgive me!"

Orlando, struck silent for a moment, dropped his hand and slowly turned away. Mr. Challoner felt Oswald stiffen in his arms, and break suddenly away, only to stop short before he had taken one of the half dozen steps between himself and his departing brother.

"Where are you going?" he demanded in tones which made Orlando turn.

"I might say, To the devil," was the sarcastic reply. "But I doubt if he would receive me. No," he added, in more ordinary tones as the other shivered and again started forward, "you will have no trouble in finding me in my own room to-night. I have letters to write and - other things. A man like me cannot drop out without a ripple. You may go to bed and sleep. I will keep awake for two."

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